Articles in Memoir
Why did I smell roasted soybeans in my glass of vintage Bordeaux? Ten years ago, as the tasting editor at Wine & Spirits Magazine, sniffing a glass of vintage red wine took me back to my earliest childhood memories of foods in Korea. While some in the tasting panel described the smells of mushroom and barnyard flavors, my descriptors recalled the pungent smells of fermented foods such as aged kimchi and soybean paste that were always condiments on the table in our home.
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By Lauryn Chun
It was a clarifying moment. I understood the tie that binds some of the most flavorful fermented foods. Kimchi (a brined pickle) also undergoes the process of fermentation that brings out complex, secondary flavors and umami (the taste of a savory protein compound in certain natural foods).
The fermentation connection
The complementary relationship between wine and the Korean food I grew up eating turned auspicious a few years ago when I started my business: Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi, a line of packaged napa cabbage, daikon and vegan kimchis. Kimchi goes through active fermentation when its vegetables (typically napa cabbage or radish) are mixed with a heady sauce of chili pepper flakes, garlic and ginger, and is aged for as little as three days and as long as a few years. The result is a crunchy, tangy, spicy and complex pickle that’s rich in digestion-enhancing probiotics. The flavors continue to change with time. I once opened a daikon radish kimchi aged over two years that had notes of aged salami and cheese.
As I wrote “The Kimchi Cookbook” and began testing a vast array of kimchi recipes using a panoply of seasonal vegetables, I explored the parallels of natural fermentation in winemaking and kimchi making. The process allowed me to help demystify and share the versatility of kimchi as a condiment and cooking ingredient that complements and enhances the pleasure of a meal much like an everyday wine.
Enjoying kimchi alongside wine results in a sensory experience in which taste and texture come alive. Both can be judged by their fruit flavors, length of acidity and overall balance.
Pairing wine + kimchi
Through a number of tastings, I have come across some stellar kimchi-wine pairings that can serve as a guide. For example, an off-dry white sparkling Grüner Veltliner or a German Kabinette Riesling is a perfect companion for the robust spice and texture of daikon kimchi. The wine’s bubbles and hint of sweetness help offset the heat and tangy notes of the kimchi and counterbalance the multitude levels of flavors. A simple Beaujolais Nouveau (yes, a red wine!) is wonderful with napa cabbage kimchi; the Beaujois’ lack of tannins brings out the fruity notes of the chili in the kimchi seasoning rather than spice that one would normally expect.
Being a wine lover shaped my understanding of kimchi — the characteristics in fermentation frame a balance of flavors and textures in my sensory experience that makes fermented foods so uniquely appealing to us all.
Top photo composite:
Lauryn Chun. Credit: Renato D’Agostin
Kimchi jars. Credit: Sara Remington
I grew up in a small town in Northern California called Paradise, where my father opened the first Chinese restaurant. My maternal grandmother, whom we called Popo, the Chinese word for grandmother, came to live with us a few years later.
“You should be proud you are Hakka,” Popo told my brother and me.
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As the only children of color in our school, we had little interest in learning about being more Chinese, we just wanted to fit in. But Popo persisted. After school, she tried to teach us how to speak Hakka and write Chinese characters in her kitchen. Then she’d often cook dinner for us — stir-fried vegetables from her garden, homemade chicken soup, steamed eggs, or sometimes our favorite dish, an aromatic stew of braised Chinese bacon and potatoes.
More than five decades later, I had forgotten most of the Chinese, but her words echoed in my mind. I had recently left Sunset magazine where I wrote food stories for more than 34 years. Now I had time to research what she meant when she said, “You should be proud you are Hakka.” I would do it through what I knew best, food. Popo had passed away decades ago, and so had my parents. It was too late to ask them questions. I wish I could have asked Popo how she came to America. How she cooked the bacon and potato stew that my brother and I still remember today. But I would have to figure it out myself.
Retracing your culinary heritage
I turned to a Hakka friend who lived nearby. We spent many sessions in the kitchen. She cooked and I took notes and photos. Smells and flavors from my childhood came back as I tasted some of her dishes. I decided to expand my scope and follow the footsteps of the Hakka diaspora.
I visited some areas where there were Hakka settlements such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Toronto and Lima, Peru. There I watched grandmothers, grandfathers and aunts demonstrate their Hakka specialties. In my cooking sessions, a younger relative often came along to translate. Over and over, the younger generation said they didn’t know how to prepare these dishes. The Hakka cuisine was getting lost through intermarriage and assimilation. I realized I was recording recipes to pass on to the next generation.
You don’t need to be a professional writer to record your own family history and recipes. Just spend some time with the person who cooks your favorite dishes. The standard bearers of your family’s culinary heritage won’t be around forever. Don’t wait too long, as I did. Do it now.
The easiest way to learn a recipe is to watch while the dish is being cooked. Simply observe, take notes, ask questions, taste and take photos. Or better yet, record a video. If needed, ask your mentor to slow down, use measuring cups, or a timer. Record the names and amounts of the ingredients. Translate your notes into legible directions and try cooking your recipe, optimally with your mentor at your side. Fine-tune the recipe and write in all the corrections. Final test, follow your written recipe to see whether the words can produce a dish that meets with the approval of your mentor. Repeat the exercise, and you’ll soon have enough recipes for your own family cookbook.
The recipes will be a legacy to pass on. You will honor your mentor with this shared experience.
Top photo: Linda Lau Anusasananan.
The enormous popularity of British television’s “Downton Abbey” is a great boon to PBS, which is airing it in the United States, and I suspect its huge success may have come as a surprise. Though PBS anticipated Emmy awards last year for costumes and for Maggie Smith’s performance in the juicy role of an aristocratic dowager, the show also walked away with awards for best writing, directing, cinematography and for the best miniseries or movie. Audiences love the story lines that zip between the behavior and happenings of upstairs gentry and the gossip and activities of below-stairs servants who make possible the gracious style of living enjoyed upstairs.
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One should never underestimate the American fascination with the British class system. We love to learn the details about the contrasting problems facing each class, and how they deal with them. The upper class has time on its hands and must figure out which fashionable outfit to wear for dinner, while those below stairs in their aprons and caps must slave away to get elegant meals on the table. What both classes share, however, is a knack for getting into interesting sexual entanglements. So, in the end, “Downton Abbey” turns out to be a soap opera with great clothes. As always, food serves as a reliable way to distinguish the classes not only by what is eaten but where and with whom it is eaten, and in the case of “Downton Abbey,” who cooks the food, who serves it and who gets to sit comfortably while being served.
Food and British social history
This series has inspired a small industry of books, some offering behind-the-scenes photographs and chat about the actors and sets; others dipping into social history to give the reader a bit of context. Even cookbooks with Edwardian recipes written by contemporary writers are coming along. But, for me, the best book that relates to the show was written many years ago by Margaret Powell, an English girl from a poor family who worked her way up from kitchen maid to cook in several great houses. Her memoir is said to have inspired Julian Fellowes, writer of “Downton Abbey.”
Born in 1907, Powell went into service when she was 15, landing in several upper-class homes first in the kitchen doing the dirtiest jobs in the household and eventually as a respected cook. Her memoir, “Below Stairs” gives us an authentic picture of what life was like for servants before World War I and after, the years portrayed in “Downton Abbey.” Happily, Powell also wrote a cookbook that informs us of the dishes served to the well-born. We do not find here English foods with such amusing and, sometimes off-color names as Bubble and Squeak, Toad-in-the-hole or Spotted Dick. Instead, we get dishes clearly influenced by French cuisine, an array of proper recipes for stocks, and directions for such classic pastries as choux and pâtefeuilletée. This is not surprising since the fame of French cooking was spread by the presence of French-born chefs in many of the British great houses and gentlemen’s clubs. This prestigious fare then trickled down to the smaller private homes of gentry who cared about status and saw to it that guests were served impressive French dishes. But we know Powell’s cookery book was written by an Englishwomanwhen we come across recipes for such British classics as treacle tart, the pub favorite known as Scotch eggs and curried eggs, which is a dish that reflects the British rule in India.
American-style success in a British class system
Learning how to cook was not easy for Powell who, in her first job as kitchen maid, faced a mean-spirited cook unwilling to teach her young assistant. Instead, Powell found herself stuck with such nasty jobs as cleaning smelly game that had been hanging for weeks, and skinning dead rabbits in one fell swoop. In another job, when Powell told her employer that she wanted to attend cooking school, she was given the time off, but had to pay for lessons herself out of her meager salary. When she did, she found herself taken in by a fraudulent Englishman pretending to be a French chef. She quit when she realized that his frequent outbursts of “oui, oui” and “mais non” were the extent of his knowledge of the French language, reflecting as well his limited knowledge of French cooking.
But Powell soldiered on, moving ahead as a cook, revealing her deepening knowledge by saying, “the less cooking you know how to do, the more competent you feel. … The more experienced I got the more I worried. I soon realized when a dish wasn’t perfection.” These are revelations of a real cook that could have been uttered by Thomas Keller today.
Powell left service when she married a milk-delivery man and set up her own household, earning extra money from time to time by catering events. She later took courses and began writing books, including novels as well as her popular memoir “Below Stairs.” Her later success was in contrast to the lives of most British household servants who remained poor and subservient all of their lives. Being stuck like this intrigues Americans who have always seen themselves as living within a fluid society in which success is attainable. At the same time, we are a bit scornful of the idle classes who spend spare time shooting small birds and animals for others to clean and cook.
Scotch Eggs, adapted from “Margaret Powell’s Cookery Book”
1 pound plain, uncooked sausage meat
1 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon dried thyme
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup dried plain breadcrumbs
Olive oil or cooking oil
1. Heat oven to 425 F.
2. Place eggs in pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then cover pot and turn off the heat. When the eggs and water are cool the eggs should be hard-cooked. Peel eggs.
3. Mix salt, pepper, thyme and nutmeg into sausage meat. Divide the meat into six parts. Roll each portion thin enough so that it can cover an egg completely.
4. Dredge each sausage-covered egg in bread crumbs until completely coated.
5. Roll eggs in oil and place on a baking sheet and bake, turning three or four times until the crust in brown, around 20 minutes.
Season 3 of “Downton Abbey” premieres on PBS on Jan. 6
Top photo: Book covers of “Below Stairs” and “Margaret Powell’s Cookery Book.” Credit: Barbara Haber
The most widely-viewed food film of this year is probably one you’ve never heard of. Called “Shejianshang de Zhongguo” in Mandarin — variously translated into “A Bite of China,” “Tasting China,” “Taste of China” or “China on the Tongue” — it deserves your immediate attention. Although it has Mandarin narration and subtitles, the language barrier is slowly lifting thanks to the efforts of Chinese-speaking foodies who crowd-sourced English subtitles. Now you have no excuse not to hunker down this winter and learn about the magic of Chinese cuisine. Salivate at your own risk.
A food TV hit
For a sense of the documentary’s popularity, consider that the week in May that it aired on the national documentary channel China Central Television (CCTV) 9, viewer ratings spiked 30% to new highs for that time period. The film beat the popular drama series that normally aired during that prime-time slot, according to China Daily.
Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, counted 2 million updates in reference to “Bite of China” and China’s behemoth online shopping portal Taobao.com had searches for food on the site double at that time. Five days after the series went on air, nearly 6 million shoppers searched on Taobao for local food specialties mentioned in the documentary, resulting in 7.2 million purchases. Sales of smoked ham produced by a family featured in the film grew 17-fold during that time period. The series has since been licensed and aired on national television in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
‘A Bite of China’ a technical marvel
Filming and editing techniques are astounding: the sounds and sights are captured with such precision and highlighted in so detailed and intimate a manner viewers can’t help but feel as though they are a part of the action. The first episode, “Gifts from Nature,” focuses on matsutake mushrooms (called songrong in Chinese).These are the bounty of an early-morning foraging excursion in Shangri-La, based in Yunnan province, and they sizzle and pop so vivaciously they may as well be atop one’s own frying pan.
“Bite of China” is the country’s first food film made with hi-definition video filming equipment. It took 13 months to shoot starting in March 2011 under the direction of Chen Xiaoqing. The sheer manpower, determination and perseverance it took is evident, requiring three researchers, eight directors, 15 cameramen and three editors to capture footage from 70 locations throughout Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mainland China.
Only that kind of time and effort could have produced such an intimate look into people’s lives, which is what most stands out long after watching the documentary, more so even than the breathtaking landscapes and mouth-watering delicacies depicted. The food purveyors and producers become such larger-than-life characters, they begin to approach idealized archetypes. Viewers learn about the intricate and other-wordly process by which lotus roots are extricated from holes dug several feet deep into desolate muddy swampland. They see up-close the fingers of a little girl learning how to mix flour for noodles with her grandmother in the second episode. These segments give an insight into the intricate history, culture, pride and workmanship that each bite of Chinese cooking can embody and inspire.
Skepticism and criticism
Nevertheless, one must view any work produced by state-run CCTV with a critical eye. The Asia Society blog has a thorough and thought-provoking analysis of the myriad Chinese netizen responses to the series. There is undeniably a strong push to rouse Chinese people’s national pride. China’s reality is often much rockier and inequitable than the idealized, peacefully diverse country portrayed in the film. Environmental issues and urbanization are hardly mentioned, nor is the disenfranchisement of a massive rural population who is actually responsible for growing and gathering the crops required to feed the nation. Episode 3, “Conversion of Inspiration,” focuses on time-tested food-processing techniques like fermentation, curing and steeping. Oddly, it never mentions China’s head-long rush into modernization and industrialization over the past 30 years, which are in part to blame for a haphazard food safety regulatory system and a focus on quantity over quality that permitted recent food safety crises to repeatedly arise.
Second installment on deck
Whether this is your first foray into Chinese cuisine or a return to familiar territory, it’s hard not to fall in love with “Bite of China,” or at least to walk away hungry. I’m excited to watch the second installment of the documentary, set to be released in 2013.
In the meantime, Mandarin speakers can watch the original on CCTV’s website. Otherwise, I was able to find translations of all “Bite of China” episodes on YouTube, though I can’t vouch for their complete accuracy. To view the Chinese version, carefully cut and paste this text into your search browser: 舌尖上的中国，英文字母
Top image: Food documentary “A Bite of China.” Credit: CCTV
Japanese meals are beautifully balanced and presented, and tend to be light on the stomach. You will never feel that you are stuffed with too much fat, sugar or protein by the end of a traditionally prepared Japanese meal. The balance we strive for not only satisfies hunger, but also entertains and nourishes each of the five senses — taste, smell, texture, color and sound.
Interestingly, non-Japanese cooks seem to think that cooking such a well-balanced meal in a home kitchen is not possible. But it is! In my New York City kitchen, I regularly achieve this goal with American ingredients because, like my fellow Japanese, I have learned to follow the simple “rules” governing Japanese meal creation. These rules, which originated in China, take into account the relationship of the five ancient key elements of the universe: earth, wood, fire, water and metal. I teach this cooking philosophy to my students during a week-long Japanese cooking course, Essentials of Japanese Cuisine, held twice a year at the International Culinary Center in New York City. They are fascinated to learn that they can apply the philosophy and rules of Japanese cuisine in their day-to-day cooking.
It’s elemental for Japanese meals
The Five Elements Philosophy holds that each element must be in proper relation to every other element in order for the universe to maintain a healthy balance and for human beings to maintain their optimal mental and physical health. Each element is tied to a color, taste and cooking technique: Wood is associated with green, sour and simmering; fire with red, bitter and grilling; earth with sweet, orange and raw; metal with white, hot and deep-frying; and water with black, salty and steaming.
When Japanese professional chefs and home cooks plan a meal, we naturally incorporate the Five Elements Philosophy. Both the simplest Japanese home-style meal and the most complex, structured, multi-course formal kaiseki consist of dishes prepared by complementary cooking techniques, flavors and colors. The following is an example of simple home-style dinner: a bowl of steamed rice (water), a bowl of miso soup (water), a grilled fish dish (fire), a sashimi dish (earth) and a simmered vegetable dish (wood) Another dish, such as deep-fried tempura (metal) can be also included in the menu.
Balance and moderation
Each of these dishes is served in modest-sized portion to ensure dining satisfaction. For example, a grilled fish dish, the protein, is typically about 4 ounces per person. At home these prepared dishes are served simultaneously, arrayed in front of the diner. At a formal kaiseki meal, the dishes are served in a prescribed sequence. In preparing the dishes we try to bring in five colors, not only to entertain the diner’s eye, but also to add to the health of the meal. Variously colored vegetables offer different vitamins and nutritional components.
And, finally, the Japanese meal balances the five taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and hot. Today in America when people talk about balancing flavors, they tend to single out four taste sensations — sweet, sour, hot and salty — and the result often is that the relative strength of these elements is escalated in an unbalanced fashion, over-emphasizing one over the other. Everything tastes too salty, too sweet, too hot and/or too sour.
The dominance of one flavor destroys the ability to detect and enjoy the natural flavor and aroma of each individual ingredient in the dishes — an important attribute of cooking Japanese style. In the Japanese meal, not only do we balance all five flavors, including the bitter flavor, which contains healthy chemicals such as polyphenols, but we also use these flavors in a way to enhance, not mask, the natural flavor of each ingredient in a preparation.
As I show in my new book, “Hiroko’s American Kitchen,” no matter what style cuisine you are preparing, if you balance cooking techniques, balance food colors and balance the five tastes, you can prepare nutritionally balanced, delicious and healthy meals. The ancient philosophy at the foundation of Japanese cuisine has endured for centuries without losing its relevance. Since I no longer live in Japan, I now use readily available fresh American produce, meat and seafood. By cooking these local ingredients in the Japanese way, I have produced many delicious dishes best described as “East-West hybrids” (Please don’t call it “fusion!”) as Nancy Matsumoto writes in her review of my book. I strongly believe that ascribing to the Five Elements Philosophy will introduce you to new and healthful way of cooking that will lead to a more balanced life.
Top photo: Hiroko Shimbo. Credit: Courtesy of www.hirokoskitchen.com
Gopala, Shyam, Mohan, Govinda … the charmer with several names, is best known as Krishna, the blue-blooded reincarnation of Vishnu, the Preserver. Krishna was born into royalty; his parents, Devaki and Vasudeva, were imprisoned by the evil Kamsa, a demon who usurped their thrones in Mathura, a town along the banks of India’s river Yamuna.
Kamsa was warned that the eighth son born to Vasudeva would be the cause of his demise. So the first six times Devaki, who was his sister, gave birth to a son, Kamsa made a visit and quickly destroyed the child. The seventh son was transferred magically into the womb of another of Vasudeva’s wives, Rohini.
Escape from death
When Vasudeva’s eighth son was born, it was during the still of midnight as the shimmering light of a full moon filtered through the bars of the humble prison. Vasudeva placed the baby, who was destined to bring order back to Mathura, in a wicker basket and perched it on his head. As he had been promised by Lord Vishnu, who was aware of Kamsa’s vengeful campaign, Vasudeva found the door to his cell miraculously unlocked, the guards drugged. When he and the child reached the banks of the Yamuna, Vasudeva’s qualms about crossing the river dissipated: it magically parted, making his task of delivering the boy to safety an easy one. A cowherd in the town of Gokhul found the beautiful baby and he and his wife, thrilled to have a son, raised him as their own. They named him Krishna.
Word of Krishna’s antics spread quickly through the tightly-knit community. A series of signs and miraculous events foretold of the boy’s pre-destined celestial purpose: to kill Kamsa and bring happiness, beauty and order, which were nonexistent under the demon’s regime, back to the people. Krishna’s handsome good looks, lightheartedness and mischievous demeanor gave every mother in town a joyous heartbreak.
Krishna, Dairy Thief
His penchant for milk, cream and butter became well known. No dairy products could be left within reach for fear of their being devoured within seconds. Whenever cream was collected to make butter, it was amassed in clay pots and strung up high, between the loftiest treetops. Krishna coaxed his fellow cowherds to form a human pyramid and he would soon be found at its apex, gulping his prize with great satisfaction.
It could be said that his love of dairy was instrumental in compelling Krishna to develop the ingenuity and physical strength that eventually led to his defeat of Kamsa in a wrestling match years later. Krishna fulfilled his purpose and restored all that was just and human to Mathura, his native land.
RAGHVAN IYER'S GHEE TIPS
DON'T use margarine or any butter substitutes that want you to think they’re just like the real deal.
DO use a heavy-bottomed pan to prevent the butter from scorching. Cast iron, stainless steel, carbon steel, and ceramic-coated cast iron are all fair game. I use a cast-iron or carbon steel wok if I happen to be making a large batch, as the fat seasons the pan.
DON'T turn up the heat beyond the low setting, as much as you may be tempted to do so; if you do, the milk solids will start to burn.
DO make sure the glass jar is clean and dry before pouring in the ghee. Let the ghee cool completely before screwing on the lid. Moisture will promote the growth of mold.
Cream to butter to ghee
The process of churning fresh cream into butter is still widely practiced in homes all across India. But this is just an intermediary step. Classic Indian cooking always calls for ghee, or clarified butter. Once the milk solids have been removed from butter, its shelf life is extended exponentially and there is no need for refrigeration. Ghee also has a much higher smoke point than non-clarified butter, making it ideal for deep frying.
In my home when I was growing up, each morning Amma skimmed cream from a saucepan filled with hot milk. Once enough was at hand, she squatted on the floor with her deep pot and long-handled wooden beater. Within minutes white, silky-smooth butter separated and floated to the top, weaning itself from the thin whey or buttermilk below. Amma scooped handfuls of the butter and placed it in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. I always happened to be there just in the nick of time to steal a few scoops, Krishna-like, its sweetness coated my tongue, the name maakhan chor (butter thief) rang in my ears.
Stainless steel tumblers collected the buttermilk, to be drunk in thirst-quenching gulps while the freshly churned butter melted on low heat and milk solids were skimmed and discarded. The clear fat, now turned into ghee, rested in a chipped orange porcelain jar, nutty and pure, waiting to bless every dish it would touch with its heavenly aroma and flavor. The taste is truly sublime.
Ghee is widely available in stores. It is not easy on the pocketbook, so be prepared to plunk down your hard-earned money for the convenience, should you not have 15 to 20 minutes of free time to spend in the kitchen. I often splurge and buy ghee imported from India, only because the cows (or water buffaloes, depending on where the milk came from) graze on a different diet and the ghee has a unique flavor not found in America’s dairy land. But making your own is well worth the time and patience.
GheeMakes about 12 ounces (1½ cups)
1 pound unsalted butter
1. Line a fine-mesh tea strainer with a piece of cheesecloth, set it over a clean, dry glass measuring cup or pint-size canning jar, and set aside.
2. Melt the butter in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally to ensure an even melt (otherwise, the bottom of the block melts and starts to bubble while the top half remains firm). Once the butter melts, you will notice that a lot of foam is gathering on the surface. Scoop the foam out with a spoon or just let it be; the melted butter will eventually stop foaming and start to subside. Now you can start to carefully skim off the foam. Some of the milk solids will settle at the bottom and start to brown lightly. This light browning is what gives Indian ghee its characteristic nutty flavor. This process will take 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Once the liquid appears quite clear (like oil) with a light amber hue, pour it through the cheesecloth-lined strainer, leaving the browned milk solids behind, and set it aside to cool.
4. When the ghee is cool, pour it into a storage jar and seal it. Keep it at room temperature, right next to your other bottled oils; it will solidify, even at room temperature. (I don’t find it necessary to refrigerate ghee, but if you wish, by all means do so. I have kept mine at room temperature for many months, without any concern for rancidity or spoilage. Because ghee has no milk solids in it, and that’s what can turn butter rancid, I do as millions in India do, and leave it out.
In the small town of El Paso, Texas, my siblings and I grew up at a unique intersection of Mexican and American culture. As kids, we traveled in and out of two worlds daily. The moment we left our casitato go to school, we entered an American world where English dominated and we loved burgers and fries (when we could get them); but at home we spoke Spanish too, and waited eagerly for our Grandma’sfresh-made salsa with warm tortillas and tamales. As the years went by and we became adults, some aspects of our Mexican heritage were unfortunately watered down or lost in translation. But thankfully our favorite family foods were not! Family recipes, particularly Grandma’s, have been an enduring link between the generations of our family.
Now, as a mother, it’s important to me to keep Mexican traditions and foods alive for my children. And at this time of year that means embracing Halloween on Oct. 31 and Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on Nov. 2. I’ve been surprised to find how many people confuse the two and even think of Día de Los Muertos as just “Mexican Halloween.” The holidays have very different origins and traditions, and I think that is all the more reason to celebrate both. The rituals, customs and even the foods behind Día de Los Muertos offer us a comforting, positive way to cope with death and reaffirm life. And with the growing numbers of Mexican-Americans — immigrants as well as second and third generation — isn’t it time we made it an American holiday?
Aztec and Celtic holidays
Día de los Muertos originated more than 3,000 years ago with the Aztecs, who believed the souls of loved ones journeyed back from the spiritual realm to pay the living a visit. The Aztecs welcomed the departed for this annual celebration and offered comforting foods to the visitors to help sustain them on their journey back to their world. Halloween, on the other hand, began with the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain, a celebration of the end of the harvest season. The Celts believed that on Oct. 31, the deceased would come back to life to seek vengeance, cause sickness or damage crops. Bonfires and wearing frightening disguises to ward off the restless spirits became part of the tradition. Historians indicate that the Celts tried to placate the dead with offerings of food — the origin of modern “trick or treating.” Clearly the ancient Aztecs and Celts had very different ideas about why the dead had come back to visit!
Food is central to Día de los Muertos celebrations throughout Mexico, and one food you’ll always find is pan de muerto (bread of the dead). These small loaves are flavored with anise and orange zest or orange blossom. Bakeries often prepare pan de muerto days in advance in anticipation of families buying many loaves for their festivities. The traditional round loaf has strips of dough attached to the top in the shape of a skull and bones. Everyone enjoys pan de muerto at their table, but it is also left on grave sites and altars.
Families often create altars at home with pictures of the departed, candles, sugar skulls, papel picado (paper cuttings) and the favorite foods and drinks of the deceased. The food served on Día de los Muertos varies from family to family. Our altar is dedicated to my Grandma, and every year I look forward to filling it with the foods she loved and in turn taught me to love. I remember having champurrado, a thick Mexican hot chocolate enhanced with corn flour, on cold winter mornings in my grandma’s cozy cocina. She made the champurrado to help me warm up in the morning. I can still picture her pouring it back and forth between two cups until it was cool enough to drink. It filled my belly and sometimes it was all I needed for breakfast.
Foods to honor the departed on Día de los Muertos
Grandma also made red pork tamales with such love and care that I think it’s only fitting to serve them on this special occasion. When I make them now, I’m reminded of how many days went into tamale preparation when I was a kid. The first day, Grandma would make the savory pork filling, and the next day it was the smoky red chile sauce. I always knew the final day was close when I saw corn husks soaking in the sink and silk threads all over the counters. My job was to remove the silk threads from the soaked husks, and it made me feel important to have a part in this cooking ritual. Grandma kneaded all the masa dough by hand. Carefully, she’d spread a thin layer of masa on each corn husk and fill it with just the right amount of pork and red chile sauce. This is one of my favorite memories of her.
We’ll enjoy Halloween this year as we always do with costumes, candy and parties, but my family also looks forward to celebrating Día de los Muertos on Nov. 2. Our table will be set with pan de muerto, champurrado, and of course tamales. The beauty of Día de los Muertos is that it gives us one day each year to recover something precious which we’ve lost. When we come together as a family and community to honor our departed, it can be an emotionally gratifying experience for everyone, particularly our children, whose sole connection to the departed may be through the holiday.
Día de los Muertos is not just for Mexico anymore. With the growing Mexican-American population as well as other Hispanic descendants who celebrate the holiday, this is the perfect time for America to adopt the Aztec tradition. This year, after the light in the jack o’ lantern has faded, consider dedicating Nov. 2 to loved ones who have passed on. You can honor them with a feast of their favorite foods, listen to the music they enjoyed, and take time to share your memories and stories with other family members. Join us in the celebration of Día de los Muertos.
Photo: Veronica Gonzalez-Smith. Credit: Jeanine Thurston
People travel for all kinds of reasons, and they bring all kinds of expectations. But what is this thing called travel? I think of it as something very basic and accessible. You can go somewhere far away, but you can also travel in your own town or city.
For me the essence of travel is putting myself in another place — somewhere not-home or not-known — and figuring out how to be there, what goes on, how things work. Trying to gain some kind of understanding of people and the place and culture they inhabit is the most endlessly interesting pursuit I can imagine.
Researching my newly published book, “Burma: Rivers of Flavor,” I spent the last three and a half years making trips into Burma, traveling and eating in many different parts of the country. Food on the street, prepared as I watched, was always an education. Sometimes I had the good luck to be invited into someone’s kitchen to observe and learn — and there was always something to learn, from the way to mix and blend a salad or noodle dish to the technique for slicing shallots.
Food is a traveler’s foot in the door
I’ve been on a book tour the last few weeks and been asked to describe what I do and why. My shorthand answer is that I am interested in food as an entry point into an understanding of culture. But when I take that answer and pull it apart, it leads me to some fresh insights into what travel and food and culture can mean.
I’ve spent more than 25 years poking around in various parts of the world, from Central Asia to Senegal, from Japan to Brazil to Southeast Asia, trying to learn about basic everyday foods and home cooking. It’s been a privilege to indulge my curiosity and be a beginner in so many different cultures and situations.
As I think about that process of taking food as an entry point to gain insights into people and their culture, I realize that, consciously or not, we all do it, and we start at a very young age.
Foreign kitchen down the block
Do you remember when, as a kid, you were first invited to a friend’s house for lunch, or maybe for supper and a sleepover? That was serious travel, at least it was for me (though of course I didn’t think of it that way at the time). There was a little nervous anticipation beforehand and on arrival, just as there is with faraway travel.And once there I was in a different world. Apart from the setting (not-home but someone else’s house or apartment), the otherness was clearest in the food. Now that I reflect on it years later, in some ways that “local travel” held more of the unexpected and took more adjustment than any travel I’ve done as an adult.
I remember at age 7 or 8 eating lunch up the street at a new friend’s house. The sandwiches were made with soft white store-bought sliced bread. There was a tall glass of cold milk by my plate (a horrifying sight to me; milk has never been my thing). There were paper napkins. My friend’s mother came by to refill our glasses once the milk level went down (I hurried to cover the glass with my hand, “No thank-you” tumbling out of my mouth). It was all very foreign and new to me.
And the same must have been true for friends who came to my house, where the bread was homemade in juice tins, so the slices were round, and was brown and very good; there was no milk and there were no paper napkins; and we helped ourselves, made our own sandwiches and found our own drinks — water or diluted juice — rather than being waited on by my mother.
That insight about my childhood food travels to friends’ homes and kitchens takes the idea of “exotic travel” and turns it on its head in a way.
We don’t need to be on the other side of the world watching someone cook dal over a wood fire to be learning and understanding others through their food; whenever we’re in someone else’s kitchen, we’re getting a glimpse or more of their food culture. And when we have visitors to our kitchen, they’re getting to know us in the same way, consciously or subconsciously gaining a deeper understanding of how we think about food and what our cooking practices and tools are.
Benefits when you travel in your own kitchen
I find it exciting and energizing, this idea that being in the kitchen of a friend or a stranger, however close to home, is a form of culinary and cultural travel. And I love the fact that our personal culinary culture, while anchored in our past and present practices, is also potentially very dynamic. It can evolve as we take on new ideas (trying to support local agriculture, for example). And it also grows as we take the “risk” of traveling in our kitchens.
What do I mean by that? In the same way that we travel in our imaginations when we read about other places or see photographs of people far away, we also travel when we prepare food that is unfamiliar to us. We hope and trust (just as we do when we get on a plane to go to a new place), that we’ll like the result. For we’re on a culinary voyage as we prepare a dish that is new to us from Burma or Bangladesh or Mexico. When we then sit down with others to eat the meal we’ve made, we’ve taken ourselves to another place. And if the new dish or technique enters our weekly or monthly repertoire, it enriches and extends our personal culinary culture.
This idea is hugely rewarding to me and I imagine to anyone who writes cookbooks. When I write about the food of another country and give recipe instructions, I’m trying to transmit my understanding of what I’ve learned at the hearths of others And so, as with each book I’ve written, my main hope with my new Burma book is that it helps people travel in their kitchen and in their imagination, and that they find their travels enriching.
Top photo composite:
Author Naomi Duguid. Credit: Laura Berman
Cover of “Burma: Rivers of Flavor.” Credit: courtesy of publisher